In October of 1962, for approximately thirteen days the world looked into the eyes of possibilities that nuclear war would be their reality. The Cuban Missile crisis is claimed to be “one of the most studied international confrontations of the twentieth century.” A ripple effect of fear and threats to world peace traveled around the globe when the United States and the Soviet Union confronted each other with nuclear weapons. The Cold War, otherwise known as the origin of the crisis was due to the feud between the United States and the USSR. In American history, The Cuban Missile Crisis shows how the power of international diplomacy and responsibility can be used as an alternative to resolving an issue instead of resulting in military forces, saving not only their own people but the fate of the rest of the world as well (Medina).
During the years 1953 to 1959 Fidel Castro, leader of the Cuban Revolution had the conclusive goal of ending Fulgencio Batista’s corrupt regime. Cubans who had been mistreated and living in poverty laid the foundation for Castro’s revolutionaries all in the name of “achieving a more united country” (McDermott). In January 1959, Fidel Castro becomes prime minister after successfully overthrowing Batista. Soon criticisms of Castro limiting economic and political freedoms ranged from but did not limit, things such as; closing down opposition newspapers, jailing thousands of political opposers, and abolishing private businesses. Castro had managed to establish the first communist state in the Western Hemisphere and by 1960 all businesses, oil refineries, factories, and casinos owned by the United States had been nationalized without compensation for which led to the U.S ending diplomatic relations and imposing a trade embargo of which still stands to this day (History). With deteriorating relations, Castro turned to the Soviet Union for support, signing multiple trades and aid agreements with Cuba which provided Castro with arms and weaponry (Khan Academy).
For the United States, the 1960s was a time of considerable social, economic, and political changes. John F. Kennedy, who was a senator at the time- wins the presidential election to succeed the two-term President Dwight D. Eisenhower (AmericasBest). This decade enveloped an abundance of social movements all with the same goal of purifying inequalities within American society. Many young men and women gathered during this time as political activists and began the Counterculture movement, fueled by the desire of changing the ways of society and creating new social norms. According to the Historian, Yohuru Williams the possibility for the growth of American democracy excelled- making this decade in history, “the most tumultuous and diverse.” The rise of black power protests against the Vietnam War, and the Women’s movement have essentially supported a wave of change during the 1960s in the United States. (Williams)
In the 1960s both Cuba and the United States underwent significant changes politically, economically, and socially. Many issues stemmed after Castro openly aligned with the Soviet Union and the U.S cutting diplomatic relations with Cuba as a result. Representing similar communist ideals, the U.S became weary of the Soviet Union and distrust with Castro grew. An article in the JFK Library states that before Kennedy’s inauguration, he was briefed on a plan by the CIA developed during Eisenhower’s administration to train Cuban exiles for an invasion of their homeland. This invasion is referred to as the Bay of Pigs invasion with the ultimate goal of overthrowing Castro and establishing a non-communist government that would be amicable to the United States. It is stated that although Castro learned of the guerilla training camps, Kennedy still authorized the plan shortly after his inauguration with efforts to cover up U.S involvement. The counterattack and failure of the invasion were catastrophic leaving most exiles killed or imprisoned; notably, almost 1,200 members of the Brigade 2506 surrendered while more than 100 were killed. For 20 months Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy made personal pleads to lead to the settlement of $53 million dollars worth of baby food and medicine in exchange for prisoners. This had a lasting effect on the Kennedy administration along with other attempts of destabilizing the Cuban government, leading ultimately to the Cuban Missile Crisis (JFKLibrary).
Almost two months later President Kennedy and prime minister Khrushchev meet in Vienna for a two-day summit for an “informal exchange of views” which also, did not end with much success (Glass). As the Kennedy administration attempted yet again for the destabilization of the Cuban government, a plan was devised under the name of Operation Mongoose. During this time, while the operation was being planned Khrushchev and Castro secretly agreed to place nuclear missiles in Cuba as a means of deferring future invasion attempts from the U.S. It was during a routine surveillance flight made by the United States, that evidence of “general Soviet arms buildup” was discovered. President Kennedy then issued a public warning about the dangerous weapons being installed in Cuba. According to the office of historians, confirmation of these missiles in Cuba precipitated the onset of the Cuban Missile Crisis. With this confirmation, Kennedy and his trusted advisors joined to outweigh options on how to proceed. Some argued for an airstrike that would destroy the missiles while others favored stern warnings to Cuba and the Soviet Union. President Kennedy came to a different conclusion and ordered a “naval quarantine” of Cuba. When observing the crisis, the use of the word “quarantine” was said to distinguish the action from a blockage that assumed a state of war existed. This also enabled the United States to gain the support of the Organization of American States (DepartmentofState).
Later, President Kennedy sent a letter of which declared that the United States would not permit weapons delivered to Cuba. He demanded that first, the Soviets would dismantle the missiles already being constructed, and secondly, that all offensive weaponry would be returned to the USSR. In addition to the letter, Kennedy also went on national television to inform the public of the Soviets offense, ensuring that they are held accountable for their recklessness of handling nuclear weaponry. The office of historians states that it was the Joint of Chiefs of Staff who announced military readiness of DEFCON 3 and accelerated plans for a military strike on Cuba. Khrushchev responds that the United States blockade was, in fact, an act of aggression and that Soviet ships bound for Cuba would proceed nonetheless. Some ships turned back and others were stopped by U.S naval forces.
The ships that were stopped posed no threat due to the lack of offensive weapons and although the threats were not present, reconnaissance flights confirmed that Soviet missiles were nearing readiness. As U.S forces were moved and placed at DEFCON 2 and tensions grew thick, Kennedy reached out in hopes of a diplomatic solution (DepartmentofState). At the brink of global atomization, Khrushchev agreed to compromise by pulling the missiles out of Cuba so long as the United States promised to not invade the island. The prime minister also indicated that any proposed deal must include the removal of U.S Jupiter missiles from Turkey. Kennedy then proposed steps for the removal of missiles in Cuba under United Nations supervision as well as guaranteed no attacks on Cuba would be made. On October 28th, Khrushchev made a public statement declaring that the missiles would be dismantled and removed. The quarantine continued until the Soviets removed IL-28 bombers although the crisis had come to an end, and on November 20, 1962, the United States ended the quarantine (DepartmentofState).
Actions from all parties involved can be considered ignorant, prejudice, and domineering on one level or another. Ultimately, in the face of a possible nuclear catastrophe, it is only human to react in anxiousness and defensiveness. I could never imagine the pressures the leaders were under during this time. At the end of the day, choosing to find a diplomatic solution and resolving the crisis peacefully was inspiring especially with all the miscommunications that took place. The burden that was the mutual responsibility of both Kennedy and Khrushchev enabled for a peaceful end to a dangerous confrontation. Putting aside their blindness when it really mattered for the survival of their nations was not only the right thing to do but also very brave. (Medina) If I was a top leader during this crisis I know the amount of anxiety, fear, and worry that was probably felt would be used towards finding a diplomatic solution.
I’d use those feelings of worry and self-doubt to ignore giving into aggression and instead, working towards finding a middle ground. Keeping the best interest of my people close like decisions made by Kennedy through putting the dismantlement under United Nations supervision and keeping the quarantine until it was certain everything was clear was incredibly smart and further protected the people. Their willingness to use diplomacy, to exercise restraint in the midst of pressure, and to give each other time to consider their options, made both of them great leaders regardless of their previous mistakes here and there (Medina). In a U.S news article written by Kenneth T. Walsh he speaks about “the end of innocence and the rise of cynicism.” Walsh states that the 1960s was, “a decade of extremes, transformational change, and bizarre contrasts” and claims that it was, “both the best of times and the worst of times.” Within the article, it’s mentioned that many people believed that the 60s was recognized as “the worst of baby boomer self-indulgence.” During this time the Vietnam war was still going on taking many, many lives of which Walsh states is one of the reasons Americans slowly lost much of their innocence and optimism (Walsh). In regards to the Cuban Missile crisis, the extremity of certain decisions such as the quarantine and the failed attempt to overthrow Castro with the Bay of Pigs invasion/the overall fear of another World War had to have contributed to the society at the time.
Although Kennedy and Khrushchev demonstrated impressionable means of problem solving and diplomacy, the people were still put under immense amounts of stress and yet still went out and used the power of their voices accomplishing things such as peaceful protests to try and make a difference. In the face of all that effort, striving towards a more unified society in a world where war and violence are so common, can be quite discouraging. Initially, the American people’s response to the Cuban Missile Crisis was a shock. Americans thought that a nuclear war was imminent; grocery stores were overwhelmed, families stocked supplies, and the construction of fallout shelters began. The phrase “the end of the world” traveled among the growing panic of the American people. Americans began to protest nuclear weapons altogether stating that they’d bring an end to us all.
Others, saw the United States to be the aggressor and would make signs to “leave Cuba alone” (HistoryBrief). On the other side, an interview with Sergei Khrushchev sheds light to the perspective of the Soviets at the time. He states that “each great power has its obligation to protect all of their allies no matter the distance or the level of importance.” After Castro allied with the Soviet Union, Sergei mentions that Castro put that obligation onto his father’s shoulders. He elaborated that “Cuba to the Soviet Union, was West Berlin to the United States- a small, useless, piece of land in hostile territory” and how if no protection is given, even to the small pieces of land “you lose your face.” Sergei explains that this would have led to their other allies losing trust in them of which they could not accept.
He states that sending missiles to the island was a diplomatic signal to Cuba- not understanding that “American mentality is different.” Where the Americans saw for reason to panic, the Soviets thought “it’s just one other crisis” (Khrushchev). Secrecy was maintained by Castro’s government, therefore, Cuban children hadn’t really ever gone through cover drills. It wasn’t until after Kennedy’s address that many Cubans lived with the fear of awareness that they were possibly going to war and that Cuba could be invaded at any moment. There was mistrust between the Cuban people due to a strengthened police state imposed after the Bay of Pigs invasion. The missile crisis heightened tensions not only within the Cuban government but also for the people (Lima). According to the United States Institute of Peace, the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis led to “both direct and indirect improvements of the international strategic environment” including agreements to restrain the competition of nuclear arms.
The first result was the establishment of the Washington-Moscow “hotline” giving leaders of both countries a direct means of communication to limit misunderstandings- the hotline is still in place to this day. There was also an agreement that forbade nuclear testing above the ground. This was then extended over the following years after the crisis to the Non-Proliferation Treaty designed to “halt the spread of nuclear weapons.” The Cuban Missile Crisis, even now- 50 years later is still widely discussed and debated due to its multiple lessons and insights through this major confrontation that changed the world.
I found The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 to be eye-opening, sorrowful, and captivating. To see these two major powers go from impetuous, presumptuous, and arrogant to calm, strategic, and tactful is admirable. The littlest thing could have made the whole situation end in a completely different manner. I believe we were lucky to have had leaders with the capability of seeing wrong from right. Although each leader showed their humanity in the sense of making mistakes and having flaws, the fact that they ultimately worked together in spite of their differences to preserve the fate of the world instead is definitely something we should, as a Nation- never forget.
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